V-E Day in Halifax, May 7-8, 1945

Improvised Beer Gardens and More

Canada has not been exempt from the volatile combination of a restive military and alcohol. The prime example in our history is probably the Halifax (Nova Scotia) riots after German defeat was announced on May 7, 1945. A two-day running melee occurred in which the Royal Canadian Navy and other forces’ personnel played a part. Civilians were also involved.

Many were injured, often by falls onto shattered glass. Three died, two from alcohol poisoning and one, a naval officer, from circumstances never fully explained. The city was looted and numerous fires were started, some the result of arson.

A catalyst was the raiding of city liquor stores, as well as the Alexander Keith’s brewery on Lower Water Street. Official news accounts showed considerable shock at the breakdown of civil order and military discipline.

The incident, often typed as the celebration Halifax would prefer to forget, has been discussed many times in books, magazines, television, and blogs. This two-part article by Bob Gordon in the magazine Esprit de Corps gives a succinct overview. It suggests a plausible immediate cause for the riot, namely allowing thousands of military personnel to roam a city innocent of entertainment facilities and not arresting the first miscreants.

This blog article by George Burden is a further excellent survey. It offers more of a psychological interpretation of events, basically that extreme circumstances can cause the abandonment of long-established social reflexes and habits.

Today, Canada projects an image of amiability and dogged pacifism. We did participate in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and until recently had jets bombing ISIS in Syria. But most military efforts in recent decades have been in the international peacekeeping sort pioneered by former prime minister Lester B. Pearson, who was a diplomat earlier in his career.

In the mid-1940s though, Canada played a significant role in the Allied armies. Our navy in particular was among the biggest in the world. Despite the wartime Conscription Crisis and the reluctance of Quebec to join fully the war effort, Canada played a significant role in the fighting. It participated fully certainly in the Italian campaign, the Normandy invasion, and liberation of The Netherlands, also the air and sea wars.

Halifax was a focal point of Canada’s participation in the Battle of the Atlantic. The city saw plenty of travail as the first receiving point for damaged ships and deceased and wounded men resulting from the sinkings.

In a situation like this, normal sensitivities and courtesies are inevitably blunted and the habits developed to fight and cope with the war become unleashed in a non-bellicose context. That said, bad as the riot was, only one death occurred and injuries were mostly a result of the victims’ haplessness.

The role of alcohol and specifically beer played a large role in what happened. Why did personnel feel emboldened to loot and steal thousands of cases of beer from Keith’s brewery and break into Nova Scotia Liquor Commission stores?

First, there were no bars in Halifax then, no taverns. There were restaurants, but they had closed so operators and staff could enjoy V-E celebrations – not that the city had planned had very much, some fireworks and a few parades. Movie theatres were shut. Liquor stores were shut for the two days, a Monday and Tuesday, over which the V-E was celebrated.

Yet, 9,000 military came into town from bases and their ships – with almost nothing to do. And the navy (the admiral in charge of that theatre) let another few thousand ratings into the city the second day, after it was clear disturbances had occurred.

Some accounts stress long-standing resentments by the military in a town that had difficulty absorbing them over the six-year war. Some soldiers and sailors, uninvited guests as frequently termed, felt they were being gouged and in general disrespected by local merchants. Townspeople for their part were (understandably) fed up with the periodic small riots that occurred on naval paydays throughout the war. Halifax was a small port city before the war, not an international one and it offered no amenities of the type sailors and other military were accustomed to on postings.

This article by Jay White about the ill-fated Ajax Club says much, in my view, about the real cause of the rioting. A society figure had opened a club which sold beer to members of all services. It served thousands a month. But it was closed in 1942 due to apparent pressure and influence of a nearby church. After the closing, the only drinking service members could do was at a wet canteen, and indeed it operated (with no trouble) during V-E but it wasn’t nearly sufficient to serve the many thousands in town and ran out of beer anyway.

Halifax, at that period, just wasn’t up to the demands placed on it to accomodate the “r & r” of service personnel and, in my view again, it paid the price by seeing the city trashed at the war’s end. It just couldn’t make the transition needed from the 1930s when it was a small place dominated by a local elite and not many years away from the prohibition period of the 1920s. It was impossible to apply a small city’s mores to an unprecedented situation, the great growth of the military presence and in particular the influx of many from Toronto, Montreal, and other areas where social and cultural habits were different.

Some stories on the riots, both contemporary (1945) and recent, make much of hostility between “Upper Canadians” and the local people of Halifax and Dartmouth.  At a minimum, it was probably an exacerbating factor. Of course, Halifax had performed well in WW I (and suffered greatly from the 1917 Explosion), but there was an international, or cross-cultural, factor present in the 1940s that didn`t exist earlier. The fate of the Ajax Club shows this clearly. Something else that shows it is the rapidity of communications by 1945.

The news of victory came on an AP wire. The federal government hadn`t announced the end of the war but events overtook it and people decided to celebrate anyway. In 1918, there would have been a more orderly way to announce victory and more time would have been available to plan properly.

Of course, nothing is simple. Had the personel been kept on their bases, had the province and city planned earlier and more effectively for V-E, had early contravenants been arrested, the riot probably wouldn’t have occurred. But if you are looking for one evident cause, I think it was the lack of places to eat and drink in town on those two days. When you see pictures of sailors drinking in public parks, in effect making them makeshift pubs, it is evident that had normal facilities been available the tumult would not have occurred, or been much less impactful.

The admiral who allowed his men into town, Leonard Warren Murray, was relieved of his command in 1946. There is an odd coda to his story. Despite having a full career in the Royal Canadian Navy starting at only 15 in 1911, he emigrated to England in 1946 and qualified as a solicitor, three years later.

As one who knows the legal business, it’s a little late to make the transition, but evidently he did. I imagine immersion in the official inquiry gave him a taste for the law, or at any rate he made the most of the experience.

The chairman of the inquiry was the Honourable Roy Kellock, well-known in the country as a Supreme Court of Canada justice. You can read his report, here.

N.B. For some background related herein I drew on the contemporary press accounts collected in this Canadian War Museum link.

Note re images: The first image was sourced from George Burden’s article linked above. The second, from The Chronicle Herald's archive pages, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owner. Images employed for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.